Christianity has some bizarre phrases: “hedge of protection,” “washed in the blood,” “sinner’s prayer,” “traveling mercies,”… but one of the strangest is the term “born again.” You’ve probably heard it at least once before. You may have even heard it so many times that you don’t think twice about what it means. Is “born again” synonymous with being “saved”? What does it mean to be born again?
Where Does “Born Again” Come From?
We first read the phrase “born again” in John’s Gospel when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus (a religious leader, distinguished teacher, and member of the Jewish ruling council appointed by Rome).
He [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
This is the only time in recorded scripture that Jesus ever uses this phrase, “born again.” Nicodemus, like many of us, has no idea what Jesus is talking about. Can we blame him?
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Nicodemus makes some solid points. Jesus will need to explain what he means a little further, but we need to examine what he has already said before we look at that.
Jesus is claiming that unless you are “born again,” you cannot see the Kingdom of God.
What is the Kingdom of God? Do you have to be “born again” to see it? While many Christians today don’t have a firm grasp on what the Kingdom of God is, Nicodemus would have had a pretty good understanding. The Kingdom of God was the great hope that the Jewish people were anticipating. So, before we get into what being “born again” means, we first have to define what the Kingdom of God is.
The Kingdom of God
The reason Jesus was sent was to preach the Gospel [good news] that the Kingdom of God had finally arrived. The Kingdom arriving was and is a complete game-changer for the entire world.
Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom where God’s will is done on Earth as it is in heaven.
This new Kingdom exists simultaneously with other nations of the world for the present. During this time, the Kingdom of God will grow larger and larger until Jesus comes again and wipes away all the empires of the world.
This Kingdom of God that the New Testament talks about so much is the new nation that Jesus invites us to become a part of. There is nothing that Jesus talked about more than the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is the hope of the Gospel; without it, there is no Gospel. Some assume that the Kingdom of God is another term for heaven, but that isn’t the case; read more about the Kingdom here.
Since the word “kingdom” sounds like a medieval term to most modern Christians, perhaps a better word to use would be “nation.” Jesus announced a new nation where he alone is president, prime minister, king. To those living in the Roman empire in the first century, this news would have been considered treasonous blasphemy. Nevertheless, entering into the Kingdom is how salvation is achieved.
So how does one become a part of this new nation?
Being Born Again
In the next verse, Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s confusion:
Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’
The Holy Spirit allows us to be born again—the same Holy Spirit, which leads to truth (John 14:17) and proves the world to be wrong (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit allows us to see the world for what it really is.
When you are physically born as an infant, your parents were most likely given a birth certificate. This birth certificate is how you can prove you are a citizen of the nation you were born into. You may be able to become a citizen of another country, but in many cases, you would lose your original citizenship since nations don’t like dual allegiances.
Jesus used the phrase “born again” because when we declare that Jesus alone is worthy of being a ruler, we are able to be born again into a new nation. We are born again and issued a new birth certificate. This new birth certificate gives us a new citizenship in the nation of Jesus.
If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17
God does not allow for dual citizenship. We are not allowed to consider ourselves citizens of the nation our former selves were physically born into. We have to abandon that citizenship in order to gain our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Foreigners and Exiles
When we are given a new birth certificate into the nation of Jesus, we gain a new citizenship (Philippians 3:20). This also means that we become foreigners and exiles in the nation or empire that we physically live in (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 1:17). This is great news because scripture also claims that the nations and empires of the world are ruled by Satan. (read more on that here)
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.
1 Peter 2:11
Because we are foreigners in the nation or empire that we live in, we do not fight their battles. Christians have their own battles to fight and wage war far differently than this world does—for instance, nations of the world fight with weapons of war in order to kill people. Conversely, in the nation of Jesus, “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” because “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but rather against the evil spiritual powers that enslave the nations of the world (2 Corinthians 10:4, Ephesians 6:12). Citizens of the Kingdom of God wage war by cutting through lies with words of truth and overcoming evil with acts of love and compassion.
The Kingdom of God is a strange nation to be a part of. To be in this kingdom is to be a servant, a helper, love your enemies, put ourselves lower than others, sacrifice, and be last: not first. It is an unattractive nation for those seeking wealth and power over others.
We may be living this portion of our lives in a foreign territory as occupiers, but one day our nation (the Kingdom of God) will cover the entire Earth (more on that here). As for now, we are strangers to the nation we live in (Hebrews 11:13).
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, and therefore foreigners, we are ambassadors to the pagan nations we live in.
We are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us.
2 Corinthians 5:20
An ambassador is a diplomat sent by a country as its official representative to a foreign country. As a citizen of the nation of Jesus, we are sent into the nation in which we are living as a foreigner to officially represent the Kingdom of God. How do we do this? We live like Jesus and follow his teachings.
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
We are to live out the teachings of Jesus in order to show others what the Kingdom of God is like (1 John 2:6, Romans 12:2). Jesus had a lot of wild teachings, some seem reasonable and some seem unreasonable, but we are commanded to follow them all as best as we can. It is in this way that those not living in the Kingdom of God will see how radically different our nation is.
The Gospel has real-life ramifications for us on earth here and now, just as it did for Jesus’s followers in the first century. Christ demands absolute allegiance. He wants no opposing loyalties to stand between you and him and his nation. The more we pledge our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, the more allegiance we must shed for the pagan nation we physically live in. After all, it makes little sense to have allegiance for what is now an opposing enemy nation.
Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
While having patriotism for the pagan nation you live in isn’t always harmful, it almost always detracts from our patriotism for the Kingdom. This is because our loyalty and allegiance inevitably become divided.
Citizenship in God’s Kingdom demands undiluted allegiance.
Christians are called to pledge their allegiance to God and his Kingdom alone, not to any worldly nation, government, political party, flag, or ideology. When we become patriotic, we divide our devotion between two nations: a kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God. Not only this, but the main task of a Christian is to keep the Kingdom “holy,” meaning “set apart,” “separate,” and “consecrated.” We are to take great care to live lives that are set apart from the ideals, values, and methods of the world’s politics.
When we give our total allegiance to the nation of Jesus, we are aligning ourselves with the winning team. All nations and empires eventually crumble, but there is only one nation that will never fade. For this reason, we can be patriotic about our citizenship in the Kingdom of God! We should be excited to tell other people how great our real nation is.
Seek first the Kingdom of God…
When we are born again, we are given a new birth certificate proving we are now citizens of a different nation: the Kingdom of God, the Jesus nation. This is what being saved means. We are saved from our citizenship in a pagan nation and are now citizens of the one and only rightful nation on Earth (Colossians 1:13). We deny our previous lord (Satan), and exalt our new King, the Lord of lords: Jesus Christ.